Mike Morea had just filmed his latest makeup tutorial when I arrived at his home in San Jose, California. In the video, the 26-year-old beauty and lifestyle influencer told his followers, while dabbing lotion onto his cheeks, that his aesthetic goal for the day was a subtle “a no makeup look.” He showed me the video shortly after I walked through his door. When I complimented his skin, Morea grinned and opened a cabinet full of his favorite makeup products.

This is the type of interaction that dominates Morea’s social media feeds, where he offers intimate, casual tips in Spanish on everything from home improvement projects to the perfect eyeliner. Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Morea posts prolifically to his 41,000 followers on Instagram and nearly one million on TikTok. His chatty videos and photos usually cover lifestyle topics, but a few months ago, he took on a subject his followers hadn’t yet seen him engage with: Covid vaccine hesitancy.

On May 19, Morea posted a photo on Instagram; in the picture, he wore a black face mask and stood in the aisle of a pharmacy. “At first, I was a little skeptical about the vaccine, but after listening to experiences and learning more directly from the experts at the department of health, I can assure you that these are just rumors!” he wrote. “Now I can’t wait to schedule my appointment to get vaccinated.”

Morea told me he was initially hesitant about getting inoculated against Covid-19, but after watching friends receive theirs without complication, he got the shot in June. He broadcast his vaccination online, so his followers got a front-row seat. “I kind of walked them through the whole thing, so it was actually fun,” he said. “A lot of misinformation is going around about Covid-19 vaccines. I wanted the opportunity to spread my voice and let the community know that’s fake news.”

Morea’s foray into the world of pro-vaccine social media messaging is part of an urgent public health effort in San Jose and a handful of other cities across the United States. As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into its 18th month in the U.S., totaling nearly 36 million cases and claiming over 614,000 lives, some local governments are turning to a diverse community of “local micro-influencers” like Morea — with 5,000 to 100,000 followers — to promote vaccination on their platforms. The effort is part of a nationwide push to convince the unvaccinated, about half of the U.S. population, to get immunized against Covid-19. 

Surveys suggest that the estimated 90 million unvaccinated but eligible adults in the U.S. fall into two major categories. The first group is predominantly made up of politically conservative, white, rural, and evangelical Christians, who are explicitly opposed to Covid shots. According to a July survey of unvaccinated U.S. adults by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 65% of unvaccinated white adults polled said they would “definitely not” get a Covid-19 jab, compared with 13% of Latino adults and 13% of Black adults. The second group comprises those who are cautiously open to getting vaccinated but say they want to “wait and see” before taking a shot. This cohort tends to be younger and more racially and politically diverse, according to the survey, including nearly one-third of Latino and 15% of Black adults. 

In Santa Clara County, where the city of San Jose is located, Black and Latino residents have the lowest vaccination rates of all demographic groups, despite dying from coronavirus at a higher per-capita rate. City officials in partnership with the digital marketing agency XOMAD and funded in large part by the Knight Foundation, selected 49 micro-influencers to promote vaccines from May to June. 

Those chosen were paid between $200 and $2,500 and compensated based on their number of followers, frequency of posts, and level of engagement. XOMAD trawled through tens of thousands of social media profiles to find the right candidates and created an online platform where influencers can communicate with local government and health officials, ask questions from their followers, and discuss how to engage with vaccine opponents. Social media posts carried the disclosure “Paid partnership with City of San Jose.”

During the two-month campaign, according to XOMAD, the influencers published 339 posts across Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, yielding 2.5 million total views and impressions.  

Officials selected influencers who mirrored the city’s demographics. San Jose is roughly one-third Latino and is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, about ten percent of the city’s population. Proponents believe micro-influencers are able to cut through vaccine hesitancy and misinformation by addressing members of their own community on the same digital platforms where viral falsehoods have become widespread. 

“Over 50 percent of our messengers who participated in this campaign had between 1,000 and 10,000 followers on their primary channels,” said Trevor Gould, a senior executive analyst for the City of San Jose who helped spearhead the project. “And so it just has this extra sense of authenticity to it.” 

As a lifestyle influencer, Morea was “shocked” when he was first approached about the project. He signed up despite concerns that opponents might attack him for his involvement. “I knew what I was getting into because a lot of people are anti-vaccine,” he said. After posting his vaccination video, “I got messages like ‘oh, you’re going to get sick,’ ‘now you’ve got a chip in you’,” he said. 

Morea heard comparable comments from people offline. One relative asked if the vaccine would make him seriously ill or implant a foreign object in his body. Morea used this and other similar conversations to poll his followers asking if any of their family members were anti-vaccine. “People responded, ‘yes, oh my god, my brother.’ It was kind of to relate, like you guys are not the only ones dealing with this.”

Beth Hoffman, a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health who is currently studying Covid-19 vaccine misinformation on social media, said public health institutions should be thinking more about how to harness local influencers. She pointed to a June 2021 study by researchers with the Public Good Projects, a U.S.-based public health nonprofit, analyzing the success of a micro-influencer campaign promoting the flu shot for Black and Latino U.S residents during influenza seasons. Researchers concluded that local social media personalities were critical messengers for conveying information related to flu inoculation in at-risk communities with lower vaccination rates. 

“I think what we’ve seen is that the anti-vaccine movement is very skilled at using social media to reach their followers, but public health has really lagged behind. So I think this can be a really valuable way to start doing the outreach that we need to do.” 

Debunking disinformation

Jonny Tran, a Vietnamese American influencer with a perfect cloud of bleached hair and a social media following of 67,000 on Instagram and 200,000 on TikTok, overcame his initial vaccine hesitancy by reading content debunking myths on social media and seeing his peers get the shot. By the time San Jose’s campaign courted him in early May, he was ready to dive in. 

Like Morea, Tran has also come up against vaccine hesitancy in his personal life, and believes sections of Vietnamese media may play a role in promoting skepticism about coronavirus immunization. 

“What I’ve seen within my family and some of the Vietnamese community I know is, a lot of it comes from misinformation from Vietnamese news,” he said. “It sort of instills fear in those who watch those outlets. I’ve seen it with my aunts and uncles who watch certain Vietnamese news, and because of that, they didn’t believe in the vaccine.” 

Jonny Tran, a fashion influencer, encouraged his followers to get vaccinated in partnership with the City of San Jose.

Morea, meanwhile, says the disinformation he’s encountered in the Latino community is predominantly circulated on WhatsApp through forwarded videos and audio messages from anonymous accounts. “It’s a huge way to spread misinformation,” he said. 

Both participants say the reception to their advocacy has been largely positive. “I’ve got random comments or DM’s from people saying, ‘oh, I was a little worried about it but now I’m planning to get my first shot. That happened a few times,” said Tran.

The campaign between XOMAD, San Jose, and the Knight Foundation is one of a handful of similar partnerships nationwide between the marketing agency, city officials, and local micro-influencers, including in North Carolina, New Jersey, and Oklahoma. “We’ve worked with some of the biggest influencers in the world, but I will tell you that the real impact comes from nano and micro-influencers,” said XOMAD CEO Rob Perry. “They have genuine relationships with their followers.” 

While the White House has enlisted high-profile content creators to spread vaccine awareness, Perry says he hopes to see federal officials turn to more hyper-local names. “The Biden administration is largely focused on macro influencers,” he said. “But in my opinion, what is going to help beat this pandemic the most is tens of thousands of these trusted social media messengers all posting to target communities around the country.”